IMAGE: Tony Blair
Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP file
British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks Aug. 3 at the monthly news conference at 10 Downing Street, London.
updated 9/7/2006 3:14:35 AM ET 2006-09-07T07:14:35

Prime Minister Tony Blair was locked in a fight Wednesday to keep control over when he leaves office, with 15 Labour lawmakers demanding he step down. They included eight junior members who resigned to protest his refusal to do so.

Blair warned the rebels that infighting would jeopardize the governing Labour Party’s effort to hold onto power, while top officials sent strong signals that the prime minister intended to leave office within a year.

Blair’s office could not immediately confirm reports that the prime minister intended to make a public statement on his future Thursday. The prime minister intended to use a scheduled visit to a London school with Education Secretary Alan Johnson to make his intentions clear, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported.

The revolt of low-level officials was unlikely to dislodge Blair from office, though it could help force him to speed up his departure and raised fears the eventual change of command in Britain would be rancorous and messy.

Blair, who led Labour to its third straight election win last year, has said he would not seek a fourth term. He also promised to give his successor — widely expected to be Treasury chief Gordon Brown — time to settle into office before the next election, expected in 2009.

Ratcheting up pressure
Pressure for the prime minister to announce a departure date has intensified in recent weeks, fueled by widespread anger at Blair’s handling of fighting between Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants.

The prime minister’s office said Wednesday he planned to visit the Middle East soon in a bid to restart the Arab-Israeli peace process. But the announcement did little to placate government rebels and others demanding Blair be specific about when he will hand over power.

Labour legislators anxious about a slide in popularity — one recent poll showed the party 9 points behind the opposition Conservatives — fear the uncertainty about his tenure is damaging their electoral hopes.

The eight junior officials said they quit rather than remove their names from the letter demanding the prime minister step aside. They were among 15 Labour lawmakers who signed the letter, writing that while they support the centrist direction Blair has taken the party, he was no longer the man to lead it.

Signs of turmoil
“Sadly, it is clear to us — as it is to almost the entire party and the entire country — that without an urgent change in the leadership of the party it becomes less likely that we will win election,” said the letter, released Wednesday.

Tom Watson, the most senior of those to resign, was minister for veterans in the Ministry of Defense. “I no longer believe that your remaining in office is in the interest of either the party or the country,” he said in a separate resignation letter to Blair.

The seven other lawmakers who quit their jobs — Khalid Mahmood, Wayne David, Ian Lucas, Mark Tami, David Wright, Iain Wright and Chris Mole — had worked as unpaid aides to government ministers.

After receiving Watson’s letter, Blair said he would have fired Watson if he had not quit. The prime minister called Watson’s decision to sign the lawmakers’ letter “disloyal, discourteous and wrong.”

“To put (the party’s gains) at risk in this way is simply not a sensible, mature or intelligent way of conducting ourselves if we want to remain a governing party,” Blair wrote.

Last week, the prime minister shrugged off demands that he announce his plans at Labour’s annual conference this month. Announcing a departure date would likely make him an instant lame duck.

But his health secretary and close ally, Patricia Hewitt, said Wednesday that Blair “has made it clear that he will step down next year,” the strongest statement yet from a Cabinet minister about when Blair might leave.

“Everyone knows that the contest for the new leadership will take place next year,” Hewitt said. “It is madness for some Labour (lawmakers) to demand conditions from the prime minister.”

Anger at stance on Hezbollah-Israeli conflict
Many Labour stalwarts were furious at Blair’s stance on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, saying his refusal to call for an early cease-fire was simply a parroting of President Bush’s position, which critics saw as tacitly allowing Israel to bomb Lebanon for weeks.

David — one of the seven lawmakers who resigned — said Blair’s handling of the Mideast crisis demonstrated he was detached from the views of his party’s supporters.

The Sun newspaper reported Wednesday that Blair intended to resign as Labour leader on May 31, triggering a leadership election likely to take about eight weeks. He would then be replaced as prime minister on July 26, the newspaper said, without citing sources.

Blair’s official spokesman declined to comment on the report, saying only that any leak to the newspaper had not been authorized.

Opposition Conservative leader David Cameron, whose party has surged in the polls since he took charge in December, commented Wednesday during a visit to India: “What seems to have happened ... is a complete meltdown.”

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